Posts Tagged ‘Dark Humor’

Best ‘New to Us’ Books in 2014: Sarah K’s Picks

December 23, 2014

These five books were the ones that stuck in my mind during 2014. They reveal truths about our shared humanity while introducing readers to new places and new forms of style. Take a moment to try these out; they are well worth your time.

Claire of the Sea LightClaire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat
On the night of Claire Limyè Lanmè’s seventh birthday, she disappears. Motherless, her fisherman father Nozias has decided to give Claire away to Madame Gaëlle, a shopkeeper who lost her daughter in an accident years earlier, to ensure Claire greater opportunities. As the members of the seaside Haitian town of Ville Rose, search for her, their interconnected stories, secrets, and losses emerge. Danticat creates vivid characters and her writing captures the beauty and sorrow of daily life.

The CommitmentsThe Commitments by Roddy Doyle
Put together a group of Dublin working class misfits with the soul sounds of the 1960s and you have Roddy Doyle’s punchy and charming novel about the joys of rock and roll. The book follows the escapades of the band as they combat over practice, get through their first gig, cut their first single and run into inevitable creative differences. Doyle’s free-flowing bawdy dialogue is exhilarating. So, if you are looking for some fun, introduce yourself to the Hardest Working Soul Band in Dublin: The Commitments.

My Struggle Book OneMy Struggle Book One by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Karl Ove Knausgaard blurs the lines between fiction and memoir in the first volume of his novelistic autobiography. The book begins with a meditation on death and then proceeds to explore Knausgaard’s childhood and fraught relationship with his troubled father. This expansion and contraction of universal ideas and the minute details of Knausgaard’s life creates a fascinating tension between the author and the reader. Knausgaard lays his life out on the table with unflinching directness for the reader to examine. My Struggle is probably not for every reader, but it is something strange and new.

AusterlitzAusterlitz by W. G. Sebald
Traveling across Europe, the unnamed narrator meets and befriends Jacques Austerlitz an architectural historian. As their relationship develops, he gradually learns of Austerlitz’s search for his lost history. As a small child, Austerlitz’s mother placed him a Kindertransport to Britain where an aged Welsh couple adopted him and gave him a new identity. After learning of his birth family after their deaths, Austerlitz begins to discover his past and how the Holocaust severed his past life from his present. Uncanny, hypnotic, and dreamlike, Austerlitz conveys the incompleteness of memories with their ragged and hazy qualities, while capturing the devastation of the Holocaust.

The Patrick Melrose NovelsThe Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn
Edward St. Aubyn pillories the excesses and absurdities of the British upper class with elegant prose and vicious wit in this cycle of four novels. He begins with Patrick’s childhood relationships to his sadistic father and neglectful mother, and following him into a ravenous drug addiction, recovery, marriage and fatherhood. His character eventually reaches a form of uneasy redemption. Patrick and the world he inhabits aren’t likable, but there’s a level of truth to St. Aubyn’s storytelling, as Patrick struggles to place himself beyond his lifelong demons. Despite some of their grim subject matter, the novels are deeply, darkly funny.

The Last Girlfriend on Earth: and Other Love Stories by Simon Rich

October 23, 2014

The Last Girlfriend on Earth: and Other Love StoriesThis is not your traditional book of short love stories. Is there a traditional one of those? I don’t know, but this definitely isn’t it.

Simon Rich is a very funny man. I was first introduced to his writing through Elliot Allagash, his first novel, back in 2010. I did a lot of giggling. So when I saw this collection of short stories on the shelf, I wanted to give it a go.

I tend to like a short story collection, which I know not everyone does. I generally prefer to space out my consumption of the stories — I have trouble staying engaged reading an entire book of short stories at once. For The Last Girlfriend on Earth, though, this was not the case. Some stories are as short as a page and a half, others are somewhat longer, but each is a quick read that will have you wanting to move right on to the next.

The stories are broken into three thematic segments; Boy Meets Girl, Boy Gets Girl, and Boy Loses Girl. Classic tales of love and heartbreak, you might be thinking. But you are incorrect, dear friend. Rich’s plots and characters vary wildly, from the “girl” in question being your basic under-the-bridge troll (think: short, hairy, speaks in grunts) to the “boy” being Hitler, now aged 124, wheel-chair ridden, and hitting the party scene with his new gal in New York.

It’s all really very silly, but sometimes that’s exactly what you need.

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Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen

September 3, 2014

Skinny DipEmbarking on a cruise with her husband Chaz, Joey Perrone has high hopes it will rekindle their faltering relationship – until he tries to murder her. Finding herself abruptly thrown overboard, Joey’s pretty grateful she’s an expert swimmer. (Chaz is an idiot, so it’s no big surprise he overlooked this one giant flaw in his plan.) Floating on a wayward bale of Jamaican pot, she finds her way to a very small island inhabited by ex-cop Mick Stranahan, who is just the person to help her plan her revenge. Wanting to find out why Chaz tried to kill her, Joey decides to play dead and “haunt” Chaz as her own ghost. In the meantime, she and Mick poke around, trying to find out why Chaz would opt for murder over divorce.

Chaz, it turns out, is a marine biologist in name only, and has been doing some pretty terrible things in the Everglades and making a tidy profit. Certain that Joey had found him out, he decided that dispatching his wife was the most expedient way to ensure his shady revenue stream would continue uninterrupted. Boy, is he going to wish he’d just left well enough alone!

I love it when the bad guys get what’s due them, and Carl Hiaasen never fails to come up with creepy, satisfying ways to stick it to his bad guys. He’s not for everyone – he has a sick, sardonic sense of humor and is far from G-rated, but if you like his kind of humor, he’s hilarious. If you enjoy the quirky, the bizarre and the ridiculous, Hiaasen provides it on every page, and with every character, no matter how minor.

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The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

August 15, 2014

The Crying of Lot 49Imagine if you can what it is like to have no possessions at all. Nothing. Very few people are able to imagine such a thing, to have nothing at all. Well let us, you and I, try to imagine something a hundred times harder: not just to have nothing at all but to have no reality at all.

Oedipa Maas, a California housewife, is unexpectedly designated the co-executor of her former lover’s estate. In parsing the late Pierce Inveriarty’s tangled assets, Oedipa becomes entangled in a complicated historical mystery, and in the process, she potentially unearths a centuries-old conflict between two mail carrier companies (Thurn und Taxis and the Tristero) kept secret by a shadowy conspiracy. Maybe. In a set of rare stamps, in an obscure Jacobean play, in overheard conversations, in wastebaskets scattered in San Narciso, Oedipa finds what might be evidence for the Tristero’s existence. Might. Drowning in or perhaps rising to new heights of paranoia, she finds herself torn between belief and disbelief, with signs and symbols all around her and nothing to guide her. And this is only about half the story.

You don’t need a degree in Jacobean theater, theoretical physics, or the history of postal systems (although this reviewer will admit to carrying out research on the United States Postal Service for a class project because of this novel) to enjoy the story here, though all these things figure into the story. For the real perfectionists who enjoy chasing down references (I know you’re out there because I see you at our weekly meetings), just keep Wikipedia and Google handy and you’ll be fine. For that matter, there’s a Pynchon Wiki out there too that really gets down into the nitty gritty.

For those of you who are concerned about the reputation and various paraphernalia that hangs around Pynchon’s name, fear not: this book is short and more accessible than Gravity’s Rainbow (his magnum opus, let’s not lie) or Bleeding Edge (his latest contribution) while still being as Pychonian as Pynchon can be. By which I mean by turns absurd, paranoid, musical, countercultural, and surreal.

And besides, the real rule when it comes to Pynchon is just this: hang on and enjoy the ride.

P.S.: write and tell me what you think; if you’ve read this book, you’ll know how to send it to me.

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Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

July 7, 2014

Geek LoveTo save their traveling carnival, Al and “Crystal Lil” Binewski experiment with drugs and radioactivity during Lil’s pregnancies to chemically breed their children into their own “freaks”. They do not see the harm in doing this. Mrs. Binewski compares her children to beautiful hybrid roses. As a result, Olympia Binewski, a bald albino hunchback dwarf, and her equally unique siblings are forced to go through life as carnival attractions, both admired and abhorred by society.

Five children make up the Binewski Fabulon. Arturo (the Aqua Boy) is missing limbs. Through manipulation, Arturo creates a cult following of people who have their own limbs removed so that they too will be special. Elly and Iphy are Siamese twins who are naive and pretty. The baby of the family is Chick, who appears normal, but has telekinetic powers. Geek Love is told from Olympia’s viewpoint.

The book’s graphic scenes and dark humor may not be for everyone. This National Book Award finalist, while tragic, is also very humorous and the plot is so fantastical that the book is a treat to read.  Katherine Dunn’s thoughtful and humanistic view of life outside of society’s accepted norm will leave readers thinking that there just may be a little freak in all of us. Those who liked Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman or fans of author Chuck Palahniuk may like this book.

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The Guts by Roddy Doyle

March 24, 2014

Jimmy Rabbitte Jr., the protagonist of The Commitments, reappears in Roddy Doyle’s new novel, The Guts. In The Commitments, Jimmy Jr. was the 21-year-old firebrand manager of the hardest working Soul band in working-class Dublin. Now forty-seven with the demands and responsibilities of family life, the novel begins with Jimmy announcing to his father Jimmy Sr. that he has bowel cancer. What follows is how Jimmy Jr. navigates disease, family crises, job pressures, a bleak economic landscape, and a reunion with an old flame from his past. Lest this description make The Guts sound like a total downer, be advised that Doyle is a master of levity and wicked humor in the face of a bad situation. His dialogue is a joy to behold, profane and lively and full of energy like this exchange:

—Usin’ her feminine charms, yeah?
—Yeah. Spot on.
—She’s wastin’ her time, said Jimmy’s da.
—Wha’?
—Norman, said Jimmy’s da.—Did yeh not notice?
—He’s gay…
—Norman?
—The Norman in there, yeah.
—He’s gay?
—Yeah.
—Since when?
—Wha’?
—Like, he’s old, said Jimmy.

Also tying the two books together is Jimmy’s love affair with music and the ways in which we use music to bridge relationships in our lives. Throughout The Guts, Jimmy uses music to renew bonds with his children and friends and his quest for the perfect Irish song is a particularly satisfying storyline. The culminating scenes at an Irish outdoor music festival are lovely and low-key though Doyle is ever-wary of sentiment turning into saccharine. If you’re still looking to celebrate St. Patrick’s with some Irish fiction, The Guts won’t do you wrong.

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City of Thieves by David Benioff

March 3, 2014

The Siege of Leningrad was one of the greatest atrocities of World War II. It is, in fact, one of the longest and most destructive sieges in world history. It lasted for 872 days and the casualties and losses counted in the millions. The brutal blockade was one of many deep scars that the Great Patriotic War left on the Soviet-Russian soul, and it is the topic of David Benioff’s novel, City of Thieves.  The novel mainly takes place during one week in 1942, when Lev Beniov, a then awkward and self-doubting Jewish teenager, met his future wife, “made his best friend, and killed two Germans.”

Lev dreams of being a great proletarian savior, a “Nevsky for the twentieth century,” but instead he is caught looting a German pilot’s corpse and sentenced to death.  His father, a poet who was revered but read by few, “disappeared” during the Stalin purges of the 1930’s, and when Lev is in his cell he believes that he is about to share his father’s fate. But while awaiting execution, Lev and his soon-to-be friend Kolya, a handsome and charming young man imprisoned for desertion, are summoned by NKVD, a dreaded law enforcement agency of the Soviet Union.  A colonel Grechko has a daughter who is about to get married, and a dozen eggs are needed for the wedding cake. If Lev and Kolya can locate and deliver twelve eggs, the colonel will return their ration cards and let them live.

The request is ridiculous. Food is the stuff of dreams. The city is embraced by severe starvation and people have not seen eggs in months. The pigeons are gone as are the family pets, and citizens of the city make library candy by boiling the binding glue of books, and reforming it into bars wrapped in paper: “The stuff tasted like wax, but there was protein in the glue, protein kept you alive, and the city’s books were disappearing like the pigeons.”
As the two make their way through the city (nicknamed “Piter” after its traditional name, St. Petersburg), nightmares and gallows humor keep them company, but even in the midst of despair, beauty can show its radiant face.

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Best New Books of 2013: Kate H’s Picks

December 6, 2013

Recently, I have enjoyed reading a lot of modern classics and historical fiction. I love to find new reads by browsing award winner lists, especially when I’m trying to find a good non-fiction or science fiction book.
My picks for 2013 are all novels which share themes of change, growth, and renewal, which is fitting during this wonderful transformative time of year!

Harvest by Jim Crace
Set in an ambiguous time period of British history, Harvest documents the decline of a rural town in the countryside struggling against the encroaching presence of industrialism. The close knit, close-to-being-inbred members of this community are forced to accept and eventually become displaced by the changes coming to pass around them. Their reaction to newcomers demonstrates a deep distrust of intrusion into their insular existence. Through his narrator, Walter Thirsk, Crace remains tender toward the members of this community, whilst also hinting at the dangers of a closed (literally and figuratively), society. A novel of many layers, Harvest is Jim Crace at his best.

The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell
Probably my favorite book of 2013, The Death of Bees is O’Donnell’s stunning debut in fiction. Set in Glasgow, Scotland, the story follows the lives of sisters Marnie and Nelly who, after discovering their parent’s dead bodies, decide not to report the deaths and instead, bury the bodies in the back yard. The characters of Marnie, Nelly, and their elderly neighbor Lennie who becomes their friend and guardian, are portrayed vividly; and their relationships feel real and touching. Wildly entertaining but also emotional and affecting, I highly recommend this novel which I raced through in a day.

Snapper by Brian Kimberling
Snapper is set in rural Indiana and follows the twists and turns of Nathan Lochmueller’s life. Reading as a series of short stories, or vignettes almost, each chapter portrays an event in Lochmueller’s life which has a lasting impact on future events. They eventually tie together as a bildungsroman of sorts, as Lochmueller comes to accept the past and embrace the present. A very relatable story, Snapper also taught me a lot about bird watching and Indiana, while remaining breezy and funny throughout.

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
A novel about growing up, death, and faith, Ordinary Grace documents one summer in a Minnesota town in 1961. Hit with the death of his older teenage sister, thirteen year old Frank is thrust into an adult world of secrets, lies, and betrayal. Ordinary Grace is mysterious and ominous; never fully revealing itself to the reader and refusing to answer so many questions. The characters each portray the various meanings of what it is to have faith, and leaves us questioning its presence and power in our own lives.

The Shelter Cycle by Peter Rock
Combining mysticism with pure realism, Peter Rock explores an unusual part of America’s religious history. The Shelter Cycle tells the story of two children, Francine and Colville, who grew up in the Church Universal and Triumphant, a religion that predicted the world could end in the late 1980s. This book is haunting in its rendering of individuals raised in a cult and how they grow up in their own ways thereafter. A blend of fact and fiction, The Shelter Cycle provokes us into thinking about the nature of religion and family, spirituality and upbringing: how does one inform the other? How can we know what is credible and what isn’t? An unpredictable and beautifully written book.

Redshirts by John Scalzi

January 25, 2013

Any geek worth his or her salt will know where the title for this book came from. For those of you who aren’t Sci-Fi nerds, it comes from Star Trek and a “redshirt” is a low ranking crew member who accompanies the Captain and other bridge officers on dangerous missions away from the ship. The redshirts almost always die. This concept is so ingrained into Star Trek lore, that J.J. Abrams even included it in his movie re-booting the franchise a few years ago. Here, Scalzi puts his own unique — and hilarious — spin on the idea in his newest* novel. (*Dang it, I wrote this review when the book came out last June, but we’ve had too many hold requests on it for us to promote it on our blog until now.)

Regular readers of this blog may remember what a huge fan I am of John Scalzi, and will note that I have blogged about several of his books before. So, suffice it to say, that I was really, really looking forward to this one! Ensign Andrew Dahl is a recent graduate of Space Fleet Academy and newly assigned to the Universal Union’s flagship vessel Intrepid. He makes a few friends with other new crewmen (and women) while waiting to board the ship and as soon as he’s on board he’s approached by the Chief Science Officer, Q’eeng. Dahl is accompanied to his assigned department (Xenobiology) and on the way Q’eeng asks him if he is interested in participating in away missions. Dahl isn’t necessarily keen to leave the ship on any dangerous missions, but he gets the impression that Q’eeng wants him to agree, so he does. After a few strange incidents in the Xenobiology lab, he and his friends discuss the odd start to their assignments in the mess hall — and they all seem to have noticed some of the same strange things about the U.U. ship Intrepid. Everyone on board, from bridge officers to department heads, to crewmen (and women), behaves VERY strangely about away missions.

Soon, Dahl and some fellow ensigns accompany a couple of Lieutenants to a space station which emitted a distress call to which the Intrepid has responded. The two away teams find themselves in some very deep doo-doo because the machines on board the space station have gone berserk and are killing all the humans. Needless to say, once the survivors have returned to their ship, Ensign Dahl and his crewmates begin to put two and two together about why everyone board is so twitchy about away missions and working directly with the bridge officers.  As the tagline on the front of the book says, “They were expendable … until they started comparing notes.” What follows is a rollicking send up of that old sci-fi show we geeks love, which also has some thought-provoking big ideas – and “meta-ness” – behind it.

If you liked Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide series of books, if you enjoyed the movie Galaxy Quest,  and definitely if you are a Fan of Star Trek (Trekkie or Trekker), you have got to read this new novel by this award-winning author and all around cool guy.

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Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay

December 30, 2011

 Serial killers scare me.  Just the idea of them gives me the creeps.  Why then, you must ask, did I pick up a book about serial killers?  Well, I had heard that Dexter was a little different.  And trust me, “a little different” is putting it nicely.

Dexter Morgan is likable, funny, mild-mannered, and blends in entirely as a nondescript human being.  The only thing different about him, according to Dexter himself, is that he probably lacks a soul.  Because of this tiny defect, Dexter is a serial killer.  But, don’t be put off, he’s one of the good guys. He only kills those truly deserving; the bad guys who earn death by their heinous crimes.  And Dexter’s job as a blood splatter expert on the Miami Police Department put him in prime place to keep up his helpful habit.  But, then a serial killer emerges that commits such perfect crimes that Dexter finds himself intrigued or even jealous.  When the killer’s style veers too close to Dexter’s own particular activities, Dexter doesn’t know whether to be frightened or flattered.  And starts to doubt his own innocence in the whole matter.

I was quite surprised that I enjoyed Dexter as much as I did.  The book is a perfect balance of humor, horror, and intrigue.  There is just enough horror (i.e. cut up bodies, unknown killers, and general creepiness), yet there is enough of something else to keep it from being full on horror.  For me, the humorous, self-deprecating, often ridiculous narration by Dexter keeps your from being pulled in too far.  The author, Jeff Lindsay, has managed to create an entirely unique idea and one can tell why the series of books and the show based upon them are wildly popular.

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